Songwriters are known to be an introspective breed whose personal experiences shape their music, and over the years Matthew West has definitely plumbed the depths of his soul for sweet inspiration. Yet on his new album, West looked to his audience to provide grist for his creative mill. The result is The Story of Your Life, a spectacular body of work that tackles a diverse array of real life subject matter and finds West exploring tender territory rarely tapped in contemporary pop music.
“I know how to write songs about my life, my experiences and my journey, my faith and my love,” West says. “Yet along comes an idea for a record called ‘Story of Your Life’ and instead of writing what I know and writing songs about my life, the idea is to turn the microphone around to the people who listen to my music. I wanted them to send me their stories.”
In a way, his new Sparrow Records album seems to be a natural follow up to West’s previous release, Something to Say, which spawned the GRAMMY ® nominated, 14-week No. 1 radio hit “The Motions.” “A lot of times the world will make people feel disqualified or not valuable or not talented enough just to keep them quiet so that they could just slide by in life without really ever making the impact that they are meant to make in the world,” West relates. “So that was the message of the last album—‘you’ve got something to say!’ Before recording this record I was praying about it [asking] ‘what does this record need to be about?’ and I felt like this was on my heart—‘okay, you told them they had something to say, now let them say it.’”
Soliciting stories from his audience is certainly a novel idea, but West has always taken a fresh, approach to his career. His creativity combined with a faithful heart and genuine love for people has made him one of the Christian music community’s most accessible and respected artists. A pastor’s son, West grew up in Downers Grove, Illinois and released three independent projects before signing to a major label and issuing his first studio album, Happy. The project yielded the hit “More,” which topped the chart for nine weeks and became the most played song on Christian radio in 2004. The following year, he released History, an acclaimed collection that included the hit title track and the instant classic “Only Grace.”
After going through career-threatening vocal surgery in May 2007, the singer/songwriter re-emerged in early 2008 with the appropriately titled album Something to Say, serving up such memorable hits as “You Are Everything” and “The Motions.” In addition to writing songs that have made him a Dove Award nominated artist in the Christian market, West’s songwriting prowess has also earned him the respect of artists in other musical genres. His songs have been recorded by multi-platinum country trio Rascal Flatts and other country artists such as JoDee Messina, Steel Magnolia and Billy Ray Cyrus. West’s songs have also been cut by other Christian artists, including Michael W. Smith, Mark Schultz, Mandisa, Jump5, Sara Groves, Joy Williams, Salvador, Natalie Grant, PureNRG and Point of Grace.
Though he’s been writing hit songs for years, West says working on his new album was like “stepping out into this unknown world” as he reached out to people to share their stories. “I went to my Facebook page and my Twitter account,” he says of announcing his intentions. “I didn’t want it to seem like a contest so I didn’t go over the top in promoting it. I just went to my core fan base and said, ‘here’s the idea. If you want to send me your story, send me your story.’ We created a link on my website where they could type in their story and click send. We got over a thousand stories the first two days. I couldn’t believe just the amount of stories that came in from every state in the U.S., and then there were 20 different countries represented. I received letters Malaysia, Scotland and all over the world. It was overwhelming.”
West began collecting stories in February 2010 and spent March and April in a cabin outside of Nashville turning the stories he’d received into songs. “I’d be at the cabin and my manager would bring me a shipment and would just dump these stacks and stacks of paper,” he says of more than 10,000 responses he received. “I would sit in this cabin and read these stories. I had a big dry erase board and I would write down ideas. I would write them down in red and whenever I would finish a song, I would write that title in blue. At the very beginning, there were hundreds of titles in red and then slowly, but surely the scales began to tip more towards the blue.”
West admits he discovered a lot about people during the process of writing the album. “I’ve learned that if somebody is asked the question, ‘what was the defining moment in your life? or ‘what has shaped you to become who you are today?’ nine times out of 10, people aren’t going to necessarily tell you a story about the happiest moments of their life,” West relates. “The mountain top experiences, the joys that we have, those are all defining moments in our lives, but the stories people were sharing with me were the weakest moments—the greatest trial they’ve ever faced, the illness that they suffered, the loved one that they lost, the abuse that they were a victim of or the addiction that they were dealing with. It was really heavy and in the first couple of days, I got pretty overwhelmed. Every day I went to the cabin and just read these stories and there were some days that I had to go for a walk in the woods. It was too much. The topics were not what I expected and I couldn’t believe that people were being so honest with me. A lot of the stories started with the sentence ‘I’ve never told this to anybody before, but I heard about what you are doing and something was just telling me I needed to write and tell you my story.’”
Most everyone who wrote said they hoped sharing their story would help another person dealing with the same issue. Matthew immediately realized he’d been given a sacred trust and that the songs he was writing would be among the most special works of his career. What emerged on The Story of Your Life is a powerful collection of songs that cover a diverse range of difficult subject matter. “Family Tree” is a poignant song inspired by a girl named Rebecca who shared the story of her dysfunctional family. As her homosexual father was dying and her parents were arguing yet again, her father’s partner responded to what they were hearing by saying, ”‘well I guess that is the legacy that you have,’” Rebecca shared in her letter to Matthew. Yet she recalls God speaking to her heart saying “’NO THAT IS NOT YOUR LEGACY. YOU HAVE MY LEGACY BECAUSE YOU ARE MY CHILD,’ and that truth made all the difference then, now and for eternity. To me, that’s one of the most defining moments on the record,” West says.
West admits he became sad and angry at the number of women that shared tales of abuse. Those stories coalesced into the compelling song “Broken Girl.” “I’m a dad, a father of two little girls, and I found myself just getting angry and asking ‘What kind of a world do we live in?’,” he says. “These people are sitting in church and these people are at my concerts and they’ve got this part of their past that is not their fault, but yet they carry it with them their whole lives and they don’t feel like they have anyone to talk to. I found myself writing songs out of different emotions than I’ve ever had. ‘Broken Girl’ is inspired by all of those stories and I wrote it really out of anger. You can hear the anger in the song, in the chords, the melody. When I sang it in the studio and I could feel how upset I was writing that song.”
Another of the album’s strongest tunes is “To Me,” which West wrote in response to a letter from a mother whose heart was aching over the way other kids cruelly treated her son in middle school. “So I wrote this song from the perspective of that parent,” West explains, “and it says, ‘they don’t know you like I know you and if they did I know they’d see. . .you are heaven’s finest invention by far, so even brighter than the brightest star, what I’d give to make you see who you are to me.’”
Another powerful song about parenthood is “One Less,” a song about adoption that West cites as one of his favorites on the album. “There are a lot of stories that inspired this song, but there was one specific one from a family in Tennessee that went about trying to adopt this little girl from Guatemala,” he relates. “It’s an amazing story of redemption, both for the child and for the parents.”
West says the most difficult song to write on the new record was the first single. “’My Own Little World’ was the hardest because I had to be honest about my life,” he says. “ Sometimes it hurts to see that on paper and to really let yourself be that honest and that vulnerable. I wrote this song while in the cabin and while being faced with parts of life that– on an every day basis– I choose to ignore. The song says, ‘I turn off the news when I don’t like what I see, it’s easy to do when it’s population me. But what if there’s a bigger picture? What if I’m missing out? What if there’s a greater purpose that I could be living now outside my own little world?’ That song was really written as a personal response to the stories that I had read and the questions that I started asking as I was looking into their world and looking at my own as well. I do turn off the news when it’s too ugly. I’d rather stay in my safe world. I was challenged by this experience and it really did change me. I look at my audience in a different way and the last verse is really is a prayer that I think is my prayer coming out of this experience. It says, ‘Father break my heart for what breaks yours, give me open hands and open doors, put your light in my eyes and let me see that my own little world is not about me.’”
Produced by industry veterans Brown Bannister and Pete Kipley, The Story of Your Life is a creative tour de force that challenged West as a songwriter and a man. Though it was a weighty project, it’s far from a heavy listening experience. “I wondered if this record might be the most depressing record that I’ve ever made because of the topics and nature, but I look at the songs now and it’s the opposite, it’s the most hopeful record that I’ve ever made,” he says. “In these songs, I feel this redemption and hope. It’s speaking encouragement to the middle school kid whose been made fun of. It’s speaking new legacy, new life to the family tree of the girl who is struggling with generational baggage.
“This record has changed me. I look at the world in a different way. The words of ‘My Little World’ are how it’s changed me. It’s not about me and that’s the irony of this record is that I’ve never been so excited about a record and it’s not about me. I’m the singer and the messenger and I connect with these songs, and it fires me up.”